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Exhausted Arsenal fire blanks at Villa Park

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arsene_wenger_pondersAfter having shipped in 8 goals unanswered in their last 2 hours of competitive football, the home fans in Villa Park breathed a collective sigh of relief as the relegation threatened former English giants held the mighty Arsenal to a goal-less draw. With the weather more than a little unfriendly to conditions and Arsenal playing their third game in a week a close encounter was expected, and Aston Villa were good value for the point they earned, coming closest to scoring when substitute Brett Holman's long range strike was tipped onto the crossbar by Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny. Arsenal on their part missed a gilt-edged chance through Laurent Koscielny late in the first half, and despite all their endeavour looked like a team that is going to struggle to produce consistent results, especially on the road this season.

The Gunners were always expected to freshen up their starting eleven for this game, and did so by dropping skipper Thomas Vermaelen to the bench, bringing on the fit again Kieran Gibbs at left-back, a tough call but a good one by Arsene Wenger considering Vermaelen's lack of form this season. Another change at the back saw young Carl Jenkinson come in for Bacary Sagna, the veteran Frenchman being given a breather. The Arsenal engine room also saw a change with Arsene obviously looking to protect Jack Wilshere on his return to action after such a long injury break with the England international also benched with Aaron Ramsey once again getting a look-in. Theo Walcott's shoulder injury meanwhile kept him out of the squad for the second straight game, giving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain am opportunity to get another opportunity on the Arsenal right. 

Aston Villa meanwhile made just one change to the side that got thumped 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium last weekend with Stephen Ireland dropping to the bench with El Ahmadi coming in to bolster the midfield in his place. Villa continued to play with a three man forward line with the pacey trio of Gabby Agbonlahor, Christian Benteke and Andreas Wiemann, who were expected to give the Arsenal defence a harrowing time on the counter. £24 million striker Darren Bent returned to training in midweek having recovered from his ankle injury, but was surprisingly not on the Villa bench.

With the rain pelting down at Villa Park, it was always going to be a tough evening for the players. Arsenal bossed the possession in the opening 5 minutes, but the only thing they had to show for it was a Santi Cazorla corner which evaded everyone in the box. Villa settled into the game eventually and looked good on the counter everytime they raced forward.

The home side soon got their share of possession, and had a couple of speculative efforts which Szczesny dealt with comfortably in the Arsenal goal. It took Arsenal 20 minutes to register their first strike as Oxlade-Chamberlain cut in on his less favoured left foot and stroked an effort harmlessly wide.

Arsenal finally appeared to be awaking from their slow starting slumber in the 28th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain broke down the right wing. His cut back for Podolski was crowded out the Villa defence, but the ball fell kindly to Ramsey, who produced a good dummy and strike on goal which was kept out by the right boot of Brad Guzan.

Things got exciting in the 38th minute when Sczcesny was penalized for handling the ball outside his area, a debatable call considering he was pushed by Agbonlahor and replays indicated that the keeper had actually released the ball in time. Villa had the ball in the back of the net from the free-kick that was awarded, but the goal was correctly ruled out as Weimann was clearly in an offside position when the ball was played through to him.

Arsenal should have opened the scoring in the 43rd minute when Giroud's scuffed cross from what seemed like a harmless position sneaked through to Koscielny, who had stormed into the opposing box completely on the blind side of the Villa defence, but the center-back missed from point-blank range when it was easier to score.

Villa had given as good as they got in a very even first half with the two teams probably relishing the comfort of the dressing room on a day when the weather appeared to be winning.

Arsenal had a good opportunity to get in front early in the second half with Santi Cazorla working some space for himself on his left foot after a good one-two with Giroud, but sliced his effort wide. In the 55th minute Ramsey made a good run to the near post to get on the end of a cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who in turn had done well to race clear of the defence, but the Welsh international was unable to get his body position right to poke the ball goalwards.

Villa had a period of pressure, winning three consecutive corners, but they failed to materialize into anything concrete. Arsenal then had two half-chances of their own with Podolski's shot inside the box blocked off. From the resulting corner the ball made its way through to Ramsey at the backpost, but the youngster failed to keep his instinctive stab down.

The game was beginning to get stretched and there were some tired legs on both sides in very testing conditions. Brett Holman had come on for El Ahmadi just after the hour mark, and dropped into the gap behind the strikers. The Australian's link play was excellent, and he created a rare opening for Agbonlahor, whose snap shot was straight at Szczesny.

There were half-chances being created at both ends with Benteke powering a header from a freekick straight to Szczesny before Ramsey saw a skidding effort fly narrowly wide. Villa's best chance of the day came moments after courtesy Holman, who smashed a powerful drive from distance, which Szczesny finger-tipped onto the bar and behind for a corner.

Arsenal finished the game strongly, despite having made some indifferent substitutions, with the players having come on in the last 20 minutes struggling to get into the game in trying conditions. In the end it wasn't enough as Villa held on bravely for a share of the spoils with that vital point getting them out of the relegation zone for a day at the very least.

The Gunners meanwhile would be disappointed with their performance, having lacked bite in the final third with Cazorla being quite simply marked out of the game. They miss a chance to climb up to fifth place, with Everton being held at home by Norwich earlier in the day. Arsenal though can claim that place on merit on Wednesday night when they make the trip over to Goodison Park.


Aston Villa: Guzan, Lowton, Vlaar (Lichaj 51'), Clark, Stevens, El Ahmadi (Holman 62'), Westwood, Weimann (Albrighton 90'), Bannan, Agbonlahor, Benteke.

Subs: Given, Ireland, Albrighton, Holman, Delph, Bowery, Lichaj.

Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arshavin 77'), Cazorla, Podolski (Gervinho 69'), Giroud (Coquelin 86').

Subs: Mannone, Sagna, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Coquelin, Arshavin, Gervinho.

Final Score: Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal

File Photograph Copyright: Ryu Voelkel